John A. Radford: ‘Artistic Dean’ . . . Who?

Vancouver Sun 25 May 1940

When John Radford died, the Vancouver Sun hailed him as “dean of Vancouver artists and famous throughout Canada as an architect, water-colorist and art critic”. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Vancouver (even in art or local history circles) who would twig at the mention of his name.

John Alfred Radford (1860-1940) was the third child born to Isaiah and Jane Radford in Devonport, England. He was a life-long bachelor.

Radford came to Canada in 1882 on the Polynesian, settling in Port Arthur and later in Toronto and Montreal. In 1888, he collaborated with J.W. and E.C. Hopkins on the design of the Montreal Ice Palace. He freelanced on various other building projects in central Canada. He studied at the Ontario College of Art while he was in Toronto; presumably, he trained as an architect in England.

According to one source, he left Toronto for Vancouver in 1902 (Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada: 1800-1950), other sources put this move a bit later: 1911. 

VPL 21079. Statue of Pauline Johnson by artist (not accepted). John A Radford (1860-1940). Dominion Photo. 1921.

Radford was invited by the Women’s Canadian Club to submit a memorial for the grave of poetess Pauline Johnson (ignoring Johnson’s explicit wish that her grave not be marked). Although sculpture wasn’t his forte, Radford complied with the invitation. His submission was turned down, however, as his memorial was considered too expensive [1]. Instead, the selection committee chose the James A. Benzie design that is in Stanley Park today.

There are a couple of records of Radford working as an architect on local projects (for example, this one in Chinatown). There is also a report that Radford designed a number of early gas stations in the city (Province, May 17 1960). But most of Radford’s time in Vancouver seems to have been spent painting, sketching, and writing.

During the pre-war years, Radford kept body and soul together by painting cover art for periodicals such as British Columbia Magazine. He was also an illustrator and art critic for Saturday Sunset.

Cover art: John A. Radford.

There is a very brief press report which suggests that during the Great War, he worked in Seattle with a shipbuilding company (Vancouver Sun 17 March 1918). The 1918 Seattle directory shows John A.Radford as “draughtsman”.

One of Radford’s enduring legacies was the promotion of and establishment of the British Columbia Art League. The League was incorporated in 1920 and had as twin principal objectives the founding of an art school in Vancouver and the establishment of an art gallery. The Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Arts opened in 1925 and the Vancouver Art Gallery opened in 1931. Radford was a founding member of the League.

From about 1927 until the week before his passing in 1940, Radford had a column in the Vancouver Sun. He had considerable scope in his column, covering “art notes” from around the world, to art critiques nearer to home. A favourite target of Radford’s were members of the Group of Seven. About A. Y. Jackson, for example, Radford had this to say: “[Jackson] is one of the notable coterie of artists in the Group of Seven who seem to be painting little better than when they started years ago” (Sun, 10 December 1932).

One Sun columnist described Radford as having the appearance of “an irascible old Moses of art”. His temperament seems to have been aptly captured in that description, too. Following his death, the Province had this to say about him:

River Landscape in Winter (9.5″x14.5″) 1928. J. A. Radford. From a 2020 auction record online.

He was an artist and proud to be one, and his paintings of coast scenery and his frank and often breezy criticism helped give Vancouver folk an appreciation of art.

John Radford’s strength lay in his independence of spirit, his capacity as a draughtsman and his talent for colour. He had been trained as an architect and had a keen eye for balance and proportion. He had an eye for beauty too, and was contemptuous of pictures that were ugly or faulty in composition or draughtsmanship. The members of the Group of Seven came frequently under his lash because of their henpecked trees and dreary landscapes.

John Radford’s independence was his weakness too. It made it difficult for him to work with others. So some of his best efforts came to naught. It made him more of a lone wolf, and so restricted his resources and his range.

He did much for Vancouver, but Vancouver never fully appreciated him either as a critic or as an artist. For that, he never blamed it, though he was wistful about it sometimes. On the whole, he got more satisfaction out of being John Radford, out of his lonely holidays on the Coast fjords and out of his one-man salons [exhibits] and his quiet generosities than he could ever have got out of being lionized.

Province 28 May 1940


  1. I am pretty sure of my facts, here. However, I have been unable to find the document where I read this information.
Rocky Ridge and Snowdrifts J. A. Radford. Reproduction in Vancouver Sun, 25 May 1937.

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